'Clash' thinking has consequences

July 31, 2011 

— For years, a group of American authors, bloggers, pundits and activists have mischaracterized our conflict with al-Qaida and other terrorist organizations as part of a broader "clash of civilizations" between Muslims and Western society.

This clash, they claim, is not just about preventing terrorist attacks, but about stopping a global Islamic movement that threatens the very foundations of Judeo-Christian society.

The consequences of this way of thinking have come to roost in the Norwegian tragedy. The accused killer, Anders Behring Breivik, endorsed their world view. Indeed, the footprints of their thinking are all over his manifesto.

This clash of civilizations ideology, as espoused by self-proclaimed "counterjihadists," needs to be strongly confronted here at home before more damage is done. These propagandists explicitly reject the idea that al-Qaida and other terrorist organizations are fringe movements motivated by a faulty interpretation of Islam. Rather, they assert in the jihadwatch blog and books with titles like "They Must Be Stopped" that this violence flows directly from the holy texts of Islam.

Global Islam, they assert, is inherently aggressive, anti-Christian and committed to world domination. The "counterjihadists" believe it is their calling to save the world from this dire threat.

While it is true that the "counterjihadists" do not call for violence as a means to further their goals, there can be little doubt, as terrorism expert Marc Sageman has said, that "their writings are the infrastructure from which Breivik emerged."

Clash of civilization thinking has deeply penetrated American public opinion. A recent study by Erik Nisbet from Ohio State University has found increasing distrust of Muslim Americans, even after the death of Osama bin Laden. Nisbet found that over half of all Americans believe that Muslim Americans "undermine American culture" and two-thirds believe that Muslim Americans have "beliefs and values that are not compatible with the beliefs and values of most Americans."

Clash of civilization thinking has also seeped into mainstream political discourse. It spiked last summer in response to the planned building of an Islamic center three blocks north of Ground Zero. It is reflected in legislation enacted or proposed in numerous states to prevent the consideration of shariah law principles in courts. Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain has said he would not be "comfortable" with a Muslim in his Cabinet and recently argued that Islam is not a religion deserving of protection under the First Amendment.

While these critics of Islam are not overtly advocating violence, they are advancing the dangerous idea that Islam is a threat to America and traditional values. Mainstream endorsement of these ideas can be latched on to by an angry, politicized individual with a delusional view that he can make a difference by taking matters into his own hands.

The vitriolic thinking that inspired Breivik is present here in America - I have seen it firsthand in emails and Web comments written in response to articles like this one. There is a word for those who think an Oslo type of tragedy couldn't occur here: denial.

So, what is to be done?

First, security officials must take this threat seriously (and I am confident they have.) Resources must be dedicated to the surveillance and infiltration of radical, anti-Islamic groups that have expressed a credible potential for violence.

Our political leaders need to speak out forcefully and on a bipartisan basis against rising anti-Islamic sentiment. They should explain to the American people that our conflict is with radical extremists who distort religion to justify violence, not with the world's 1.2 billion Muslims. This enemy is being confronted by a global coalition of Muslims and non-Muslims, often fighting together on the same battlefield, committed to creating a peaceful, prosperous world.

Muslims Americans need to be more aggressive in confronting mistruths about Islam that appear in discourse - whether they come from radical Muslims or from anti-Islamic demagogues. The American public is uneducated about Islam. This vacuum is being filled by the clash of civilization cheerleaders. Muslim Americans need to tell a different story.

Finally, our religious leaders should engage in an aggressive program of interfaith dialogue. Studies suggest that such experiences can be powerful educational tools, especially for young people.

The massacre in Norway has shown us that clash of civilizations thinking can become a self-fulfilling prophesy of violence. It is well past time to start confronting this false narrative.

David H. Schanzer is the director of the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security at Duke University, UNC-Chapel Hill and RTI International.

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